Back from the Undead: Happy 100th to homegrown horror icon Vincent Price

May 19, 2011 at 4:00 am

In the darkness, an invisible hand flips a switch. The soft whir and ghost light of an old 8mm film projector, then an Edward Gorey-like drawing of a small boy with a pointed chin and wild hair materializes on a screen.

"Vincent Malloy is seven years old," intones a dry, effete and oddly familiar voice. "He's always polite and does what he's told. For a boy his age, he's considerate and nice. But he wants to be just like Vincent Price."

Clearly, something awful is in store for poor Vincent Malloy. The foreboding narrator is enjoying himself far too much. And so are the members of the audience assembled for Super 8 Movie Madness at the Way Out Club on South Jefferson Avenue. They've already seen truncated (and, therefore, nonsensical) versions of A Bucket of Blood and Jason and the Argonauts, which were enjoyable in their own cheesy way, but now they're ready for something really good: Vincent, Tim Burton's first commercially released film, a six-minute tribute to Vincent Price narrated by the horror icon himself.

Price was born exactly a century ago — on May 27, 1911 — right here in St. Louis, and this month his city intends to do him proud. This screening of Vincent is merely a prelude to the celebration, which goes by the name Vincentennial. Originally slated to be nothing more than a special night of Super 8 Movie Madness, the event has grown over the course of the past year, to the point where it's now a monthlong celebration with a host of sponsors, including Cinema St. Louis and Price's high school alma mater, Saint Louis Country Day School, from which the actor graduated in 1929.

There will be movies spanning Price's 60-year career, from early Hollywood noir classics like Laura through his reign as the king of horror in House of Wax and The Fly and his great Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allan Poe adaptations The Pit and the Pendulum and The Raven, to his final big-screen appearance, in Burton's Edward Scissorhands. There will be lectures by film scholars, by Corman and by Price's daughter, Victoria. There will be a display of Price artifacts, including one of the actor's baby booties, plus movie posters, comic books and resin model kits, at the Sheldon Art Galleries. There will be a display of Price-inspired artwork at Star Clipper in the Delmar Loop. There will be a performance of a live-action version of Price's camp triumph The Abominable Dr. Phibes, by Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre. And, of course, there will be a special Price-themed edition of Super 8 Movie Madness.

"Vincent Price is the most iconic movie star from St. Louis," asserts Tom Stockman, an avid collector of horror-movie memorabilia and the mastermind behind Super 8 Movie Madness and Vincentennial. "Do you think there's going to be a John Goodman centennial celebration 40 years from now? Kevin Kline? Shelley Winters? They don't have the cult following."

Of course, you don't have to be a cultist to have seen and appreciated Price's body of work. The horror movies that made him famous constitute less than half his screen oeuvre. Odds are you've seen him without even realizing it, late at night while flipping TV channels. There he is in a random old movie — Leave Her to Heaven, The Three Musketeers, The Ten Commandments, The Great Mouse Detective, The Trouble With Girls (starring Elvis Presley!). Or on a rerun of The Brady Bunch or Scooby-Doo or PBS's Mystery! At the very least, you've heard his voice and his maniacal laugh in the music video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller." His characters are usually witty, urbane and utterly villainous. It's hard to take most of these roles seriously — and Price didn't.

"The last thing my father was, was a snob," Victoria Price says by phone from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "He understood that popular culture was an incredibly powerful force. He had fun."

Price, then, would probably have appreciated the scene at the Way Out Club on Super 8 Movie Madness night. At the end of the film, as young Vincent Malloy succumbs to Vincent Price-induced madness, a man leaps onstage. The dark circles under his hooded eyes hint at sleepless nights devoted to some sort of nefariousness, and the narrow strips of facial hair connecting his beard to his moustache look like fangs. He pulls open his unbuttoned bowling shirt and thrusts out his chest to reveal the Vincentennial T-shirt beneath.

Meet Tom Stockman. As he reels off a rundown of Vincentennial events, an audience member suddenly joins him.

"I'm going to sing a song about Vincent Price," declares the man, a fellow Price devotee named Jim Batts. "It's to the tune of the theme song from The Mighty Hercules." An audience member familiar with the Saturday-morning cartoon show, which enjoyed a brief run in the mid-1960s, whistles.

"Vincent Price, star of stage and screen," Batts croons. "Vincent Price, with his fingers so lean...."

The crowd cheers. Stockman beams. It's only when he turns around that the logo on the back of his bowling shirt becomes visible: an embroidered portrait of Price as the abominable Dr. Phibes.

"Vinnie, besides being an actor, was an avid collector himself," says Robert Taylor, a retired librarian in New Haven, Ohio, who, along with his cousin Sara Waugh, owns what might well be the world's largest repository of Price-iana.

"It's Vinnie's personality that means so much to me," Taylor goes on. "His life as a collector. He started at ten years old: He bought a Rembrandt reproduction with his allowance! Can you imagine? Just because he wanted to own something like that. He collected seashells. No one knows that. I collect seashells, too. I have his Australian trumpet. It's the largest gastropod in the world."

Alas, the Australian trumpet, which is approximately the same size as Taylor's cat, Sally, is not on display at the Sheldon Galleries. The Vincentennial exhibit is confined to a small corner of the gallery, improvised from what once housed the staff restrooms and bar. Stockman had hoped to display all the artifacts in the more spacious environs of the Missouri History Museum, but he approached museum officials too late; curators there generally plan exhibits three years in advance and couldn't accommodate the Vincentennial.

Though the Sheldon show is fairly bare-bones in terms of biographical touchstones, the Taylor/Waugh collection is well represented, as are those belonging to fellow Price completists Jenni Nolan-O'dell, a professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville; Cortlandt Hull of Bristol, Connecticut, an artist who was a friend of Price for twenty years; and Rick Squires, a Rochester, New York, librarian and the proprietor of the Vincent Price Exhibit, an online repository of Price artifacts.

"We all got in touch via eBay," Taylor recalls. "That was back when you could still see who else was bidding on an item. We all hated each other. We considered each other the scourges of eBay." But gradually they realized that they were just about the only people interested in collecting Price's possessions — as opposed to posters from his movies and other souvenirs — and they struck up a friendship.

At the Sheldon you can find ads for Dr. Price's Phosphate Baking Powder (the company Vincent's grandfather founded in the 1860s) and the emptied tin of baking powder that served as young Vincent's childhood piggy bank. There's an invoice for orange bark and candy lemons, produced by the National Candy Company, owned by the actor's father, Vincent L. Price Sr., and a "Candy Kid" medal bestowed upon the younger Price on the occasion of his birth, declaring him a member of the National Confectioners Association. (The National Candy Company is now defunct, but its factory still stands near the intersection of Gravois Avenue and Meramec Street in south St. Louis.)

There's Price's baby book, including two locks of blond hair, the white mittens Price wore to his christening and a single white baby bootie.

"The baby book ended up in North Carolina, of all places," says Taylor, who purchased it at a high-end auction three years ago for a sum he declines to disclose. "The bootie was smashed flat in the album. When I found it, I cussed when I realized the other bootie wasn't there. But in the book, V.L. Senior wrote how on the way to church Vinnie kicked off the bootie. He looked high and low and couldn't find it. So it disappeared in 1911!"

There are pictures of Price as a small child holding a toy boat and posing with his parents, older brother and two sisters at their vacation house in Ontario, evidence of a happy childhood. In the mid-1920s, the family settled at 6320 Forsyth Boulevard. The house, located across the street from the Washington University campus, is now owned by the school and used as faculty housing.

A few miles west in Ladue, on the campus of Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School, watched over by an oil painting of the actor at his most forbidding, resides another treasure trove of Price memorabilia: a series of scrapbooks lovingly assembled by former Country Day headmaster Robert H.B. Thompson, who made it his business to keep track of his boys during their school days and beyond.

Cliff Saxton, Country Day's archivist, is now the custodian of Thompson's scrapbooks, along with back issues of Codasco, the school yearbook, and the Voice, the student newspaper. The mementos reveal that Price was at best a mediocre student, that he played soccer and ran track, that he was the senior class artist and that one of his nicknames was Carrie. "It was because of a burlesque dancer he favored," Saxton explains.

They also trace the beginnings of Price's career as an actor to a 1927 production of a musical comedy called Pickles. The plot concerned the trials and tribulations of an American pickle manufacturer and his daughter during Vienna's annual carnival season. Price was a chorus boy.

"Mr. Reeve, the director, doubted Price could act," Saxton imparts. "Price begged him for a chance."

By the following year, Price had worked his way up to speaking parts in All at Sea, which he would later describe as "a bastardized version of Gilbert and Sullivan," and El Bandido, in which he portrayed Don Lozono, a captain of the Spanish army — his first villainous role, though his performance was not deemed worthy of mention by the reviewer from the Voice.

"My dad always said St. Louis was a wonderful place to come from," says Victoria Price. "It was a launching pad for exploring the rest of the world. Though he didn't think for a minute he would stay in St. Louis."

A key document missing from this period is the diary Price kept during his first trip to Europe, in the summer of 1928. (During which, Victoria Price wrote in Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography, Vincent divided his time between admiring masterpieces of Western art and the girls in his tour group; Codasco reported that he returned with "an inexhaustible supply of stories.") "It's prophetic," laments collector Rick Squires. "It begins, 'May this be the first of many journeys.' It set the tone for the rest of his life. And we don't know who has it."

Even sadder is that nobody has a picture from the school dance Price allegedly attended dressed as Count Dracula.

Yale, where Price majored in art history, was ungenerous about providing the Vincentennialists with artifacts from Price's college years (the Voice reported in its alumni notes column that the Country Day alum joined the Ivy League institution's glee club), and even the resourceful cadre of collectors was unable to come up with anything more revealing than Price's senior yearbook photo. So the Sheldon exhibit skips ahead several years to that fateful day in 1935 when Price, by then a graduate student in art history at the University of London moonlighting as an actor, wrote a letter to a producer named Gilbert Miller to actively campaign for the role of Prince Albert in the Broadway run of the play Victoria Regina, a biography of Queen Victoria. That letter is on display, and you can marvel at the roundness and clarity of Price's penmanship.

Price had already played the part in a much smaller production in London, and he got the part on Broadway, thanks to the advocacy of Helen Hayes, who was tapped for the lead role and had been impressed by Price's performance. The show opened in New York in December 1935, and a star was born.

Wrote a bedazzled correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an article that was later pasted into headmaster Thompson's scrapbook: "Unlike the usual novice upon whom the spotlight suddenly beats, Price is not at all excited. He has that incredible self-assurance that sometimes results from a good family background and an Eastern college education — a quality that reminds a middle-class observer of the aplomb of a handsome bench dog who isn't even mildly surprised when the winning ribbon is affixed to his kennel."

Victoria Price attributes her father's graciousness to training rather than breeding (to continue the American Kennel Club metaphor): "Very early on Helen Hayes told my dad he had to consider himself a public servant," she explains. "An actor is nothing without his fans — he needs to have an audience. She taught him what that meant — that he had to understand who his audience was and connect with them. My dad never turned down an autograph."

Fifty years later, Rick Squires got an opportunity to meet Price backstage after a performance of The Villains Still Pursue Me, a lecture/one-man show about the actor's career in film. He came prepared with a program from the Broadway run of Victoria Regina that he'd picked up at a flea market. "There were 30 of us," Squires recalls, "and he spent time with each of us. He spoke to us as though we were the only person there. When he saw my program, he said, 'Where did you get this?' He told me about the artist who had drawn the cover and told me if I wanted to find out more, I should look for an old issue of Life magazine with the Hoover Dam on the cover. Then he went to talk to my girlfriend. She had a program for Angel Street [another early Price play]. He gave me this look, like: Where the hell did you find this?

"He was a nice man," Squires concludes. "It's just what you want your heroes to be."

"Do you notice something?" Tom Stockman asks, pausing at the end of the first row of display cases at the Sheldon exhibit.

Why, yes! You notice that Vincent Price was, as Squires says, a nice man. There's a sympathy letter he wrote on hotel stationery from the Holiday Inn in Bismarck, North Dakota, to Boris Karloff's widow, Evie. There are the theatrical programs he signed for Squires that long-ago night in Rochester.

He was hard-working: Just look at the annotated script for Diversions and Delights, Price's one-man show about Oscar Wilde, covered with scrawled notes of rehearsal times, and the leather wallet containing his Equity and SAG cards and (puzzlingly) two cards declaring him an honorary lifetime member of the Academy of Magical Arts.

Price was sophisticated, so well known as an expert in art (thanks to an appearance on the game show The $64,000 Challenge) that in the 1960s he curated a collection sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. He also served as commissioner of the Department of the Interior's American Indian Arts and Crafts Board until he decided the role would be better filled by a Native American.

He was a gourmet: There's a copy of one of his books, Cooking Price-Wise With Vincent Price, the companion volume to his short-lived TV cooking show; on the cover he wears a striped apron over a white button-down shirt and ascot, and he's bending over to taste something from a pot on the stove.

"That's right," Stockman says with a tinge of satisfaction. "No horror."

That's not entirely true. Hanging on the wall is a watercolor of a rural cottage that Price made for his hometown sweetheart, Dottie Leland. Dottie's parents wouldn't let her marry an actor, so she married Mr. Leland instead and settled in St. Louis. Price gave her the painting to show there were no hard feelings. In 1993 Dottie and her husband were murdered by their gardener. But Price had nothing to do with it.

And when you pass through the double doors into the exhibit's second room, Price turns eeeeevil.

Despite all the encomiums about Price being a nice man and a serious actor, most of his devoted collectors discovered him the way everyone else does: through his horror movies, on TV, late at night. And here are the relics of the Price they all know — and love. Posters for The Fly, The Tingler, The Bat (costarring fellow St. Louisan Agnes Moorehead), The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Wax (the 1970s revival, not the original; you can tell, Stockman points out, because one of Price's costars is credited not with his 1953 name of Charles Buchinsky, but with his more famous alias, Charles Bronson) and the most valuable piece in Stockman's personal collection, House on Haunted Hill.

"It has it all," Stockman says cheerfully, referring to that last film. "Gore, violence toward women. It's ghastly!"

These are also the movies in which it is clear Price enjoyed himself most.

"As Vincent put it, 'Villains have all the fun,'" says collector Cortlandt Hull, a friend of the actor. "He also said, 'If you notice, the villains get the better costumes.'"

One of those costumes resides in the gallery room's largest display case: a black suit with a white shirt, a black cravat and an elaborately patterned silk vest, worn by a life-size model of Professor Henry Jarrod, Price's character in House of Wax. Appropriately, the figure is made of wax. Hull sculpted it himself, along with the life-size Dr. Phibes that stands beside it. Normally both figures reside in the Witch's Dungeon, Hull's horror museum in Bristol, Connecticut, but their creator chauffeured them to St. Louis for the Vincentennial.

Once Hull asked Price whether he wore his characters' sumptuous robes off the set. "He said he wore a plaid flannel bathrobe. He said, 'You don't think they'd let me take those home, do you? They go right back to the costume department.'"

But there's something about that silk and velvet, not to mention Price's silky voice and his tendency toward campy roles (in evidence here, with photos from his turn as Egghead in the TV version of Batman and his appearance as himself opposite Lucille Ball on Here's Lucy, not to mention Oscar Wilde) that make some fans wonder. Sure, Price was married three times — at the Sheldon there's a press clipping from his marriage to his first wife, Edith Barrett; and that's his third wife, Coral Browne, on the poster for Theatre of Blood, the film on which they met — and fathered two children, but what does that prove?

"When I wrote my book," says Victoria Price, "people suggested that I try to pursue the question of whether he was gay. I called people, I followed every lead, and in the end I didn't find out anything that would have proved one thing or another. He loved people. He was nonjudgmental about sexual preference and ethnicity. That's what I chose to focus on, instead of running around looking under beds."

And so it was that Victoria Price found herself searching for her father, the man buried beneath the "Vincent Price" persona. There's no one alive now who remembers Price before he became an actor. Victoria herself wasn't born until 1963. She was never a huge fan of the horror movies. "Nobody likes to see their father being bludgeoned and immolated in melted wax," she says, quite reasonably.

At times even Vincent Price grew tired of being Vincent Price. "When he was under contract for American International, he wasn't allowed to make horror films for anybody else," Rick Squires says. "He also knew they were looking for a younger villain and wanted to push him out. He did a lot of movies he didn't like — until the Phibes films. They were the last good time, those and Theatre of Blood. That was when he quit movie acting and returned to the stage. That was what he loved doing best."

Still, Price would continue to spoof his horror image in countless commercials and TV cameos. He allowed his image to be reproduced in resin model kits and rubber dolls, several of which are on display at the Sheldon. In some ways, his daughter believes, he really was "Vincent Price."

"The majority of people work for ten or twenty years, and then they retire into private life," she says. "My dad worked until the year before he died [in 1993 of lung cancer, at age 82]. That's incredible. When you're out there as a public persona for so long, it's difficult to distinguish between that and the inner self."

And sometimes it was a lot of fun to be Vincent Price. Friend and collector Cortlandt Hull tells a story of how, when Price was appearing in the play Angel Street, he decided one day to kill time between the matinee and the evening performance by sneaking into a nearby theater that was showing House of Wax.

"He found a row of high school girls eating popcorn," Hull relates. "And at the point in the movie where his character swings on a rope into Phyllis Kirk's bedroom, he leaned over and said to them" — here Hull switches on his best Vincent Price imitation — "'I hope you're enjoying the movie.'"

Toward the end of his life, Price began dismantling his enormous art collection and giving pieces of it away to friends. One recipient was the actor Norman Lloyd. He told Riverfront Times theater critic Dennis Brown that one day in 1993, there was a knock on his door. It was Price's assistant.

"Mr. Price wants you to have this," the assistant told Lloyd. "He's in the back seat of the car, but he doesn't want to see anyone, so don't come out to thank him." On the back Price had inscribed, "From Vincent Price to Norman Lloyd," and the date.

Price planned to get rid of the rest of his things in a massive garage sale, but he was too ill to organize it. After he died Victoria carried out his wish. What she couldn't get rid of via garage sales, she sold off on eBay or through auction houses.

This chain of events bewilders Price-ianans. "The stuff Victoria was selling — I don't understand," sputters Squires. "It's family stuff!"

Victoria Price can't understand why anyone would expect her to keep all of her father's things. "He had boxes of crap," she says. "If it had all belonged to a parent who wasn't famous, I would have given it all to Goodwill."

She admits that she has the advantage of possessing actual memories of her father that go beyond a brief backstage encounter over an autograph. The fans who didn't know him still very much want to, and they attempt to fill the void by collecting.

Jenni Nolan-O'dell, the Price collector who's also an anthropology professor at SIUE, believes there's something elemental in her need to amass a pile of Price's former possessions.

"There's this concept called mana," she explains. "It means that an object that once belonged to a person or a place where they once lived is imbued with their essence — their life force, their energy, their chi, their soul, their spirit. It makes the object special and sets it apart from the ordinary. There's something special about the objects from Vincent Price. It's a way for me to be close to him.

"There's many things people could connect with him," Nolan-O'dell goes on. "That's why he's so accessible to so many people. If it's not horror, it's art or cooking or animals."

Nolan-O'dell's favorite Price piece isn't part of the Sheldon exhibit. It's an enormous pillow crocheted by Price's second wife, Mary, depicting his dog Joe. Price adopted Joe at around the time of his divorce from his first wife in 1948, and, after the dog's passing, he wrote a tribute to their life together called The Book of Joe. "That pillow," Nolan-O'dell says, "that's what's left of Joe."

Robert Taylor also has some Joe-related memorabilia: a pair of art books the dog used for teething. "No one can prove anything," Taylor concedes. "But those two books are all chewed up at the bottom. The threads in the binding are sticking out like tails. I think Joe did it. Things like that give me such delight in collecting Vinnie's things."

In the spirit of Price, Taylor likes to give away some of the 150 art books he has amassed from the actor's collection. Price inscribed his name in each book, along with the date he acquired it — a practice that pleases the former librarian. "It's like an autograph," he says.

When Taylor and his cousin Sara Waugh die, they intend to donate their Price collection to the Library of Congress or to Yale. Squires and some of the other collectors plan to do likewise. Provided the university "gets on the stick and improves its Vincent Price collection," says Taylor. "Right now it's all crammed in a cupboard somewhere," he scoffs.

"Sometimes I feel closer to Vinnie when I'm working with his things," Taylor adds. "Vinnie would be very pleased in some way that his legacy is being preserved and that it will be preserved in the future. I like to think that, anyway."

That's how Stockman feels about organizing Vincentennial. Vincent Price never won an Oscar (though he did get to be a presenter at a couple of the ceremonies) or any other major industry award. This event will be the largest tribute the actor has ever received, and Stockman feels it's long overdue.

"I'm not making any money off of this," he says. "I've invested thousands of hours. But everyone loves Vincent Price and wants to talk about him. Nobody's been discouraging or uninterested. It's a goodwill gesture."

He pauses. "Vincentennial. It just sounds big."

For a rundown of Vincentennial events, visit